The Dear Departed .. by Stanley Houghton
The story centers around the loneliness and neglect many people contend with in their dotage. The subject dealt with in this short play undoubtedly evokes pity, and sadness among the readers, but the author has been able to inject some subtle humour, and harmless satire into the plot making it a very enjoyable piece to read.
Mrs. Slater and Mrs. Jordan are two sisters married to Henry Slater and Ben Jordan respectively. The two families live separately in a neighbourhood that has little sign of affluence or luxury. In this low-income setting, the Slaters live with their ten-year-old daughter Victoria, and her maternal grandfather Mr. Abel Merryweather. The old man is retired from active life, and is more or less ignored by his host family. He is a man of no real wealth sans some furniture and some saving in the form of an insurance policy.
It emerges that Abel lived with his other daughter Mrs. Jordan for five before choosing to move over to live with his other daughter, Mrs. Slater. Mrs. Jordan didn’t quite miss her father, nor did Mrs. Slater quite wrlcomed him. The old man was an impoThere is no love lost between the two families. Mrs. Slater is an imperious bulky woman of overbearing nature. She lords over her family members like a matriarch. No wonder, she picked up a verbal duel with her sister Mrs. Jordan one day. The latter left in a huff promising to never come to see Mrs. Slater again.
Clearly, members of the two families have no dearth of meanness, and greed. At every step, these unsavoury traits affect their thinking and action. Abel, unloved and uncared for, lives out his days spending his time in the local pub, run by a widow. He drowns his drudgery in drinks. Generally, he stays aloof from the family, either due to the uncaring attitude of the family members, or of his own volition.
One night, he returns home late and drunk. He goes into his room and lies down on his bed without taking his dinner. He slips into a slumber, possibly due to an overdose of alcohol. He oversleeps possibly and fails to get up in the usual time. Mrs. Slater assumes her father has breathed his last while asleep. For her, the death (assumed) has brought happy tidings. She can lay her hands on whatever her father (still awake and well) has left behind.
First the rituals of mourning have to be gone through. The younger sister Mrs. Jordan was informed of the sad demise and asked to come with her husband Ben. Ideas rush into Mrs. Slater’s mind. She has to make a quick work of removing her father’s bureau and the old clock from his room. She asks Victoria to change to a much less flashy dress to demonstrate how sad she is.
Even for a moment, none in the family feel it necessary to check on the old Abel (still in sleep. No one comes up to him, no one sheds a tear, no one grieves.
Abel is asleep when the process of dispossessing him of his bureau, the clock, and even his pair of slippers starts. Henry Slater isn’t moved a bit either. He sits in the chair awaiting the tea session to start. Mrs. Slater’s scheming mind is whirling with ideas. It emerges that Abel Merryweather had gone to pay his insurance premium the evening before. Mrs. Slater is relieved the insurance policy is alive, ready t be claimed, like a ripe fruit from a low-hanging branch. Mrs. Slater succeeds in dragging out the bureau, just before her sister, Mrs. Jordan and her husband, Mr. Ben Jordan. Mrs. Slater had got the front door bolted to preempt the chance of her visitors seeing her when she was removing the bureau.
Henry Slater is already wearing his customary black tailcoat and black tie. Even in this perfunctory exhibition of grief, Mrs. Slater wants to outdo her sister. The two families sit down for tea. Mrs. Jordan suggests that a doctor could have been called in to inspect the dying man –her own father. She has come to claim her share of her father’s left over assets. Mrs. Slater brushes aside her sister’s suggestion of neglect of their dead father by saying that the doctor was unavailable.
Just when the squabble over sharing of the left-over assets of their father starts, it emerges that the old Abel had not paid his insurance premium the evening before. Instead, he had a merry time with Mrs. John Shorrocks at her pub Ring-O-Bell. The revelation draws the ire of the everyone, particularly the sisters.
When the bargain is getting nastier and nastier, Abel steps out of his room and is flabbergasted to see the visitors and the animated discussion going on. He finds the bureau and the clock, and even his pair of slippers missing. He demands an answer. Mrs. Slater fumbles for one. The cat is finally out of the bag. The old Abel is both bemused and befuddled. He declares that he is not dead and is alive and kicking. It leaves everyone red-faced.
To deliver the last punch, Abel discloses that he is ing to marry Mrs. Shorrocks the next Monday in the church. Consequently, he will move out of the house.